Earl Reum: Remembering the funniest guy in town

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You could groan at all his time-tested jokes and silly props -- the red nose, the garish ties, the tiny kazoo and corny sight gags -- and still end up howling with laughter and holding your aching sides.

Any way you look at it, Earl Reum, the dynamic Denver educator who died this month at 79 after a long battle with cancer, was a delightful man: inspiring, humble, relentlessly enthusiastic, big-hearted...and so damned funny you just had to laugh until you cried.

A Denver native, Reum was a charismatic figure even as a student at South High School, earning him this priceless writeup in Life magazine in 1948. (His obit in Time comes 62 years to the day since his debut in the Luce empire.) As a teenager he was already working part-time at a magic shop downtown and dreaming of greater things.

Reum taught speech at Baker and Merrill middle schools; for decades he heard from former students who thanked him for helping them gain confidence in themselves. He became involved in promoting student councils and the values of leadership, rose to become coordinator of student activites in Denver and Jefferson County, and spent much of the past thirty years traveling the country as "Mr. Student Council," a motivational speaker who effectively combined magic, humor and inspiration and was in heavy demand at student leader functions.

I caught a few of Reum's stump speeches when I was a student in DPS, but I knew him in an entirely different context. He and my father, Ed "Doc" Prendergast, were close friends, fellow travelers in the Mile High Magicians Society and colleagues in the art of the cornball. Earl was an impulsive (and compulsive) performer, and you couldn't escape an encounter with him at holiday parties or at somebody's house without being asked to check out his belly button (a giant button that said BELLY behind his lapel), a "hot" book (which burst into flames), some big money (oversized dollar bills), the frog in his throat (yes, it croaked) and half a dozen other quick yuks.

He could be quite manic about this. In a restaurant he'd drag waiters and bus boys into the act, or float from table to table, dipping into pockets to produce amusements for baffled strangers. Never in stasis himself, he couldn't stand to see anybody looking bored. And it usually worked -- although one time he set off a smoke alarm at the Burnsley Hotel showing off a hot wallet to a desk clerk. "I think we've bothered these good people enough, Earl," my father said, and they quietly slunk out the back door while the fire trucks were arriving out front.

Behind all the clowning was a decent, caring father of four children, a thoughtful man who earned a doctorate in education and had the largest collection of antiquarian magic books in the state -- more than 3000 volumes. He knew magic history and the evolution of certain arcane effects better than just about anybody I knew, but he was no showoff. I can't remember him ever complaining or failing to leave a gathering without praising and expressing pride in his companions.

In 2008, as my father was coping with the death of his wife of more than sixty years, Earl dropped by for frequent visits. The two of them would rummage through boxes of magic my father hadn't touched in years, reminiscing about certain tricks and performers and their own vanished youth. Those visits were better than anything any doctor could prescribe. Earl gave a eulogy at my father's memorial service that began in peals of laughter and yes, ended in tears.

I saw less of Earl as his own health worsened in recent months. The last time we clinked glasses at the Burnsley, he handed me a pile of proposals dealing with setting up magic clubs for young people and suggested there might be a good story in it some day. But the real magic was always in the galvanizing effect he had on people, especially students in need of a laugh and an affirmation that hard work and character count.

Like any true original, he was irreplaceable.

For other tributes to Earl Reum, see his Facebook page and the many YouTube videos taken from his speeches or public performances. Below is a video of remembrances from his memorial service.

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